Amid the threat of cyberwarfare, training a new generation of highly-skilled cybersecurity professionals is higher education’s newest goal.
The Department of Homeland Security has doubled its cybersecurity workforce in the last two years and in May, the Pentagon’s declared that cyber attacks will be considered acts of war. Both developments have contributed to an increased focus on cybersecurity among colleges and students.
“The workforce has significant demand for highly-skilled people in this domain,” said Daniel Menasce, senior associate dean at George Mason University’s Volgenau School of Engineering. To meet the demand, the university will launch an interdisciplinary cybersecurity master’s program in January 2012.
A study released in August by the computer security firm McAfee said cybercriminals likely affiliated to a country have spent at least the past five years targeting more than 70 government and private entities.
But according to President Obama’s 2009 speech on cybersecurity, the U.S. is not prepared to face these attacks. “Just as we failed in the past to invest in our physical infrastructure –our roads, our bridges and rails– we’ve failed to invest in the security of our digital infrastructure,” he said.
Colleges are counting on future investments to attract students to their programs.
“I will say there is a lot of competition,” said Alan Carswell, chair of the University of Maryland University College’s Cybersecurity and Information Assurance Department. “There are a lot of programs out there with cybersecurity in their name.”
The National Security Agency and the Department of Homeland Security have recognized 145 higher education institutions as National Centers of Academic Excellence in Information Assurance Education, Information Assurance 2-year Education and/or Information Assurance Research since 2004, according to a July press release.
The designation must be renewed every five years and grants students attending the institutions access to both the federal and Department of Defense scholarship programs. Twenty two new institutions were designated this year, for a total of 70 designated in the last three years.
Meanwhile, the College Board’s online search tool lists 258 institutions offering undergraduate majors in “computer/systems security” and/or “cyber/computer forensics and counterterrorism.”
But the real evidence of the growing popularity of the cybersecurity field is in the number of students enrolling in courses.
“Our security classes are all full,” said David Dampier, director of Mississippi State University’s Center for Computer Security Research. “Every semester we have to turn people away.”
This popularity is good news considering cybersecurity professionals are hard to find.
Nearly 54 percent of 175 government hiring managers said their biggest hiring challenge was finding candidates with the right skills, according to a 2010 press release by the International Information Systems Security Certification Consortium.
For the Department of Homeland Security, the right skills are technical capabilities in computer science or information technology and the ability to translate those capabilities into action, said Bobbie Stempfley, acting assistant secretary of the Office of Cybersecurity and Communications.
As government jobs become more abundant, a college degree that teaches these skills could represent a profitable investment.
As of 1:00 a.m. Sunday, Usajobs.gov returned 55 federal job listings for the search inquiry “cyber security” with salaries ranging from $20,234 to $123,758. The same search on careerbuilder.com returned 703 private and federal job listings from the last month. And according to salary.com, the median salary for a Chief Information Security Officer is $162,831.
For Rene Borges, a senior information security and forensics major at Rochester Institute of Technology, the true reward is in keeping people’s information safe.
“I wanted to protect people’s assets and information in a world where it’s becoming quite the problem,” said the 22-year-old.
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